When you ask most people what they like about Harry Potter or Gone with the Wind, it isn’t the plot that gets gushed over. It’s the characters. Our plot would mean nothing without characters to move it forward, making character development a vital part of the planning process.
And character development gets confusing fast. There are many different articles and courses out there that all promise to teach you how to create the next lovable character.
I’m not going to contradict those articles. There’s a lot to know, but I think it all boils down to creating characters that we can empathize with. They’re flawed, just like us.
We can see ourselves in their shoes. It takes a lot of work and planning behind the scenes, and we’re going to look at the background work that forms the foundations of a fandom.
What is Character Development?
Before we go any further, we need to know what character development is and why it’s essential to every story we write.
Let’s start with a definition:
Character Development: is the creation of a character’s emotional and psychic journey within a story. It is also the process of building a fully-rounded and life-like character.
Character development is essentially two things:
- Character development is the process by which an author develops a detailed character profile. This activity is usually done in conjunction with plot development and takes place as part of the planning process.
- Character development also refers to the way a character changes through the course of the novel. They grow in response to the experiences and events gathered throughout the story. This is known as the character arc, which we’ll get into in more detail later.
Do you need to write a long, detailed character profile to fulfill this definition? No, you don’t, but you should give it some thought.
And here’s why. Readers aren’t going to remember much about the plot of your story. They’re going to remember your characters, how you made them feel, or something that they learned.
All of this is driven by your characters, which is why you need to flesh them out. Before we get into that, though, we’re going to look at some more terms.
The Character Development Terms You Need to Know
Let’s start with some terminology. We need to know what we’re talking about before we get into how to craft these memorable characters. No two characters are created equally. They can be flat and static, or they can be round and dynamic. Either way, you need to make them human.
Static vs. Dynamic Characters
A static character doesn’t experience any significant change throughout a story. In comparison, dynamic characters change significantly throughout the story.
Out of the two, dynamic characters are more interesting than static characters. However, I think there can be a case made for static characters being enjoyable as well.
A well-known static character would be Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter. Draco is given multiple chances to change and grow but he never does, which is unusual.
A good dynamic character would be Harry. He grows by adapting to the circumstances and learns from his challenges. The best example is when he realizes that Snape wasn’t the bad guy that he thought he was. Harry puts his prejudices aside and makes a point to remember Snape fondly.
Round vs. Flat Characters
Here are some examples of round and flat characters:
Frodo Baggins is a round character because he discovers unexpected depths of personal commitment, physical and emotional strength, and dedication to a cause throughout J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Queen Gertrude from Hamlet is a flat character primarily because she does not change at all. Additionally, she is used as a tool for other characters. Claudius and Polonius use her as a means to spy on Hamlet.
In essence, round and flat characters are similar to static and dynamic characters. There are very slight differences between the two that make them different, such as how much they change and how fleshed out their personalities and motivations are.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist
The protagonist is the main character in your story. The antagonist is the person or thing against your protagonist. They’re in direct conflict with each other. There are also false antagonists and protagonists. You can read about them here and here.
Examples: Harry Potter would be the protagonist, and Voldemort is the antagonist. Voldemort wants to purify the wizarding world and kill Harry, while Harry doesn’t want those things to come to pass.
The protagonist does not have to be a good person. They can be bad people too. For example, in Frozen, Prince Hans seems like a good guy early in the film. We find out later that he just wants to be king, and is willing to marry Princess Ana and kill Queen Elsa for the throne.
A foil is when a character opposes another character (usually the protagonist) to highlight character traits of the other character or protagonist. You can also foil the plot by having a subplot that contrasts with the main plot. A foil is not necessarily the antagonist.
With a foil, you want to expose your protagonist’s faults or amp up their better qualities. You can use the foil character to show what would have happened if your protagonist went down a different path. It is used a lot and often goes unnoticed.
An excellent example of a situational foil happens in the movie 13 Going on 30. The main character is shown what would happen if she gave up her best friend to fit in with the popular kids.
An example of a character foil would be Heathcliff and Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Edgar is more soft-spoken, gentle, kind, while Heathcliff is rough around the edges, loud, and brash.
Internal vs. External Conflict
Internal conflict is when the character is grappling with something inside him/herself or mental illness. Hamlet, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is an excellent example of this. Hamlet struggles with what to do about his uncle and whether he can deal with killing his uncle.
An external conflict is when the character is dealing with something outside of his person. It can be another character or a natural disaster (mudslide, hurricane). An example of this would be in the Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The character of Jack “goes savage” and tries to kill Ralph and his tribe.
Internal vs. External Motivation
Internal motivation is when a character wants to do something because it makes them feel good or something they want to do. External motivation is when a character wants material and non-material goods – think power, money, sex. You need these for your characters. As humans, we always have a reason for doing something. It’s the same for your character.
Character Development Must Haves: Beliefs, Goals, and Values
Beliefs, goals, and values make up the core of your characters. Whether they’re the protagonist, antagonist, or the guy who has only one line, every character has them. It gives your character their foundation.
It’s what they value in life (i.e., family), what they believe in (i.e., unicorns), and their goals (i.e., what they want to achieve or buy).
It helps your character make decisions and stay true to who they are. An example of this would be Desmond T. Doss in the movie Hacksaw Ridge who refused to bear arms and kill anyone in World War II. Desmond stuck to what he believed in and worked against adversity to become a field paramedic in the US Army. He wouldn’t compromise his beliefs and values at all and still managed to achieve his goal.
Another note on this is that your values are usually going to remain constant, but your beliefs are sometimes subject to change – but rarely. However, your character’s goals can change throughout your story, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Character Development Tips to Keep in Mind
Those are your big building blocks for your character. If you put all of those things together, you will have character development. The above terms will make your character more real to your readers – no matter what genre or world you set your story in.
As good as the terms are, there are many other things that you should keep mind:
We all have weaknesses.
Everything has a weakness, including the Death Star in Star Wars. The same is true for your character. If they were perfect and went about life without a care in the world, things wouldn’t be that interesting.
Perfect characters are snooze-worthy. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like Superman. He’s too perfect, and his allergy to Kryptonite is silly, as everyone seems to have it. It doesn’t seem like he has to work all that hard to defeat the bad guy.
I’d rather read about someone with flaws and good qualities. However, if you want that perfect character, you can do that, but consider making that character a foil for someone flawed.
Your character is going to fail. How they deal with that failure is where you’re going to see some development. It’s where you can show your readers what type of character they’re dealing with and where they will grow.
Whether it is friends, relationships, the weather, etc., things are always changing. Nothing stays the same, which means your characters will change too (unless they are static or flat).
Keeping Things Straight – Character Development Profiles
So how can we keep all of this information straight, especially if you have multiple characters? That depends on your style of writing. Most people fall somewhere along the spectrum between planner and pantser.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a pantser at heart and don’t do much plot or character development. If I am doing a more complicated story, like my current work in progress entails, I will create some character profiles, timelines, or an outline, to keep everything straight.
I also know that this approach does not work for everyone. And that’s okay. Do whatever you’re comfortable with! No one will judge you for writing a full character profile or a one-line sentence on a napkin.
And don’t be married to one way of writing a character profile over another. Change things up and test new techniques out. One might work better than the other for different story formats, but you’ll never know this unless you experiment.
Different Character Development Techniques
- Just write. Don’t overthink it, but keep that idea of what you want and let it play itself out. Remember, you can always edit things later.
- Create a loose outline. Know who your characters are and a few things about them. The point is to know enough about them that you can distinguish them from one another. Then let your imagination take over.
- Create a full-on outline. Come up with as much detail as you want for each character in your story. That way, you know who your characters are before you start typing away on your computer.
Character Development Tools
There are many tools that you can use as part of your character development process. It can range from novel-writing software, family tree generators, fill in the blank worksheets, or free cheat sheets off of Pinterest.
You can do it all by hand and keep everything organized in a notebook or binder, or you can have it all nicely typed up in a spreadsheet. How you want to do it and what tools you want to use are up to you.
I’m going to take you through some of my favorites.
First on my list are the cheat sheets. Most of them are free to use, and you can easily find them on Pinterest. Here are some examples:
Cheat sheets are easy to use for short stories and for those of you who don’t particularly liCheat sheets are easy to use for short stories and for those who don’t particularly like doing full outlines. A cheat sheet’s strength lies within its ability to get to the need to know facts about your characters, like their goals, fears, special skills, age, etc.
Character Development Worksheets
Worksheets can be another useful mostly-free resource you can use. They can come in spreadsheets, .docx, and PDF formats. All you need to do is subscribe to an email list, which may not be ideal, but it’s the least we can do for free stuff. And if you don’t want to sign up to get one, you can always create your own.
Worksheets are the older, wiser, and more in-depth version of the cheat sheet. They get into the nitty-gritty details, like your character’s psychological makeup, speech, mannerisms, etc.
These types of character profiles are involved and can take numerous pages to complete. (Think 13 pages or more). So know that you’re going to be spending more time with your characters than not.
Another tool that you can use is a character interview. Here’s how it works, you pretend that you’re an interviewer for a newspaper, a secret agent, or a novelist, and you are interviewing, or interrogating, a character for your story.
The purpose is to get to know your character in a deeper, three-dimensional way before you start writing. It’ll give you a better understanding of how they will react in different situations.
You can go to for questions in numerous places, like this article by The Write Practice. Don’t forget to record your character’s responses down. You’ll want to use the answers as hype for when you launch your book and grow your audience.
Family Tree Generators
I don’t know how many times this has saved my butt in the past six years, but it has. I love them, especially when you’re dealing with numerous characters that are related to each other.
There are some paid and free options that you try out. I originally designed them by hand and then moved to an online version to make it a bit easier to read. Here are some generators you can use:
- Family Echo. I use this one for my family trees. They’re not super fancy, and it doesn’t provide birth, death, and marriage details, or denote twins, but it gets the job done. You can sign up for a free account and keep all of that information in one place or print it off.
- Canva. You can create a visually appealing family tree with Canva. You can sign up for a free account and use a template to build it. Up to you. I use Canva to design feature images and infographics, and they’re easy to use.
- Creately. Another free option that allows you to build visually-appealing family trees. They have templates that you can choose from, or you can make one from scratch.
- Microsoft Office. They also have family tree templates that you can use. But you do have to have a subscription first.
I know that’s a lot of information to take in. So take a deep breath, let it out. It’s a lot easier than it sounds. And it’s worth putting effort into it.
Seriously. It is.
How many of us want to see our characters loved and followed by a devoted fandom? I think it’s safe to say that most of us wish for this.
All you have to do is put in the work and time to develop those characters. Make them human, learn from their failures, and act bravely when confronted by their biggest fears. And if you dare, step into their shoes and breathe human emotion into a fictional being.
That’s how you’re going to craft a memorable character. And earn the hearts of your fans.
Who’s your favorite fictional characters? Why do you love that character? Do you have any specific character development techniques that you use?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next week.